The Wonderful World of Sitcoms
The guilty pleasure of escaping into the idealistic, dependable worlds of pure entertainment.
Spending most of adolescence as an overly neurotic individual, sitcoms have served as a de facto therapist since middle school: if drama overtook my friend group, I found solace in “Living Single.” When struggling in the junior high hierarchy, I ran to one-dimensional “My Three Sons.” Dramas and soaps served as poor escapism: after all, reliance on twisting plots and character arcs sent gritty tension to my middle school mind. The lack of complexity in sitcoms, on the other hand, built a stable, optimistic dimension of reality to contrast with daily life. And so, with all this in mind, I soon came to believe in the power of sitcoms; specifically, the therapeutic power of escaping to their idealistic worlds.
By eighth grade, I felt like the premise of a 90s sitcom - at the age of peak awkwardness, I was forging a tentative identity, and I was “the new kid” for the second year in a row. These circumstances combined to fuel my dormant anxiety, a fact that came to light one afternoon in eighth-period history. Following a tense conversation with my teacher, the details of which I no longer recall, my panicked self had no choice but to hyperventilate. Leaving school that day, lacking the terminology to address my mental state, my only choice was to wipe my tears and settle into a therapeutic session of “Boy Meets World.” As soon as I hit the remote, the arena of my living room echoed with the noise of alternating sniffles and chuckles. It must have been a peculiar sight - 14-year-old me, fresh from an anxiety attack, eyes wet with tears, hunched over with laughter. Nonetheless, binge-watching sitcoms brought immense relief. Despite how out of place I felt in the classroom, surrounded by unfamiliar students and unforgiving teachers, I always felt at home laughing with Patty Duke, Mary Tyler Moore, and the Cleavers. I soon settled into a neat routine. On Friday nights at 6, to celebrate the end of another stressful school week, I would plop down on the couch, turn on channel 318 and wander to another life until I fell asleep.
It was around this time when I came to terms with the irony of my sitcom-binging
habit. These fluffy shows would never reflect my true experiences - there’s no 80s sitcom covering first-generation American teenage girls whose hair is defined by unruliness and whose lives are defined by panic attacks - but for 30 minutes at a time, I could let go of my unglamorous existence and dive into a different world. There was a bit of gloom in realizing that the acne-free protagonists of my favorite shows never lost their stable friend groups or dealt with anxiety (unless, of course, for laughs), but I couldn’t help but feel entertained by the exploits of my white-bread sitcom friends. If anything, the lighthearted antics of these characters gradually helped me view my own issues through a slightly less melodramatic lens, for better or worse.
To me, this was a remarkable feat - while other genres pushed audiences to think
deeper about society, sitcoms required their audience to forget the dimensions of society and immerse in a world of idealistic simplicity. Mirror-like dramas like "My So-Called Life," whose protagonist dealt with losing friends, realizing she didn’t measure up and inexplicably hating her loving parents, while certainly much closer to "quality television," were poor choices when trying to forget the details of my own shaky existence. For that, I turned to sitcoms.
Whenever sitcoms did touch on real-world subjects, they still managed to reduce
multifaceted topics to one-size-fits-all scenarios with simple, comedic solutions. I picked up on this early in my sitcom-watching career, watching the infamous “Saved By the Bell” episode in which Jessie Spano’s three-day drug addiction is instantly solved with a pep talk. Likewise, instead of centering on the potential trauma of losing a parent, sitcom “My Two Dads” nudged viewers to forget such issues by focusing on the apparent hilarity of gaining two fathers. There may well be long-term harm in treating such heavy topics so lightly (and exposing oneself so immensely to such harmful ideas, as I did). In the short term, however, these sitcoms trained me to view myself in a brightly-filtered lens, providing a brief-yet-valuable escape from my mind.
Sitcoms built idealistic and dependable worlds, where no matter what, familiar characters appeared and familiar credits rolled. To me, this escapist, guilty-pleasure distraction was the peak of salutary entertainment - watered-down versions of the human experience created for nothing other than pure enjoyment.
My middle school binge-watching days were rooted in my simple belief that the sitcom is a powerful thing, as at a time when I struggled to find my identity, they managed to expose the softest part of my character: an ability to escape into worlds of simplicity, to forget my mental woes by laughing along with my favorite shows.
Ore James is a writer and student from the Houston area. Her work is featured in several digital publications and she edits for various outlets.